While I was pondering the ideas of historicism last week, my thoughts also chained through a number of associations and arrived at an interesting question: “Could humanity actually be sent back to the Stone Age?” I arrived at this question by way of cyclical history and thoughts on whether a single species could actually provide more than one data point on the sequence and timing of social, philosophical and technological innovations.
My own answer was “No”. I will explain with a thought experiment.
First imagine a maximal disaster, whether natural or human caused, that does not wipe out the species. This means we must guarantee there is a large enough breeding population left over somewhere in the world such that after the event or period in question, the population is able to rebound rather than decline to extinction. My guess is we need somewhere in the range of 1000 individuals, with a typical age and sex distribution. They do not all have to be in one place, but they do have to be within a distance that allows intermarriage between groups. If there were 10 groups of 100 dispersed over some distance which is no more than a few days to a week travel by foot or horseback, I would consider that a viable population.
It seems unlikely any event would leave only one such pocket. Possible… but not very probable. I will be assuming for my baseline a surviving population on earth of perhaps one million, scattered about in small groups in out of the way places across vast distances. The Himalayas, the Andes, islands in the Pacific, places like some of the Outer Hebrides or the Falklands, small towns in the Rocky Mountains and such.
Even if a place starts out smaller than 100, we may presume that small groups of one or more survivors will tend to congregate together for safety and to reach a critical mass of manpower and skills for survival. In this, some of those isolated ancient villages may indeed have the edge.
Now comes the question: does this actually reset humanity to the stone age? I think the immediate answer is no. Most places in the world simply lack people with hunter-gatherer skills and even for people who do manage to figure them out in time to not die of cold and starvation it will not be enough. They will want more out of life. Most will join with others they run across and will rapidly transition to a more familiar lifestyle with farming at its center. Even amongst town and city folk there are those sufficiently skilled in growing things in garden plots. This will be much superior to life in temporary lean-to shelters where survival hinges on running down a deer in the dead of winter.
In the most likely scenario, the majority of survivors a year on from our hypothetical will live in such places, whether they are communities with a long history of self sufficiency or new ones which have learned the hard way, ie Plymouth without the friendly natives, is immaterial in the long run.
One might then presume we will fall back to an agrarian stone-age rather than a full on hunter-gatherer stone-age. If so, one would be very wrong. The survivors will at the very least have knowledge of the way things were and of what was once possible, even if they do not know how. The intelligence spread of the survivors will be no different than the intelligence spread of the general population today so effort will go into recovering capabilities that make survival easier. I suspect that some locations would be forging metals within a few years and some would be back to the iron age and even steel within a few decades at most. Trade would pop up very quickly because the survivors would be used to trade and specialization. One location might supply some quantities of one ore and another location a different one and yet a third location will specialize in mud brick oven smelters with bellows of wood and animal hide and molds of sand or clay. Tallow from animal fat might be used for wax to make lost-wax molds.
Now with the ability to make iron, steel is not very much harder. Labour intensive perhaps, but it has properties for tools and farm implements that will make that effort worthwhile. If you can make ploughs and tools, you can build a foot treadle lathe. If you can do that, you can copy a Lee Enfield rifle, just like Afghan villagers did at the turn of the previous century. Perhaps muskets are easier for a start: black powder is not hard to make and the materials are not that uncommon. Urine was a key ingredient and the source of a lively trade in London five hundred years ago for just that reason. Flint is not exactly rare and acquiring it will be the cause of yet more trade.
So we have rather primitive firearms almost as soon as we can make decent iron.
Now here is one you might not have seen coming… electricity. Humans knew how to make batteries thousands of years ago. All you need is a clay pot, an acid and simple materials for the anode and cathode. Good wire is a problem, but people will just deal with what they have until they can figure out how to do better. Iron is not great, but if you have nothing else? In any case, there should be loads of copper to be mined out of the detritus of the dead civilization. There will be loads more than are needed at first and stripping raw materials from the old cities will be the source of a lively trade and wealth for the traders.
If you have electricity from batteries, you can do electroplating. Of course, if you get your hands on copper wire, low quality motors and generators can be made by hand. I did so from a few nails and a bit of wire when I was perhaps ten or twelve. I am sure an adult with a lifetime experience of fixing broken farm implements could do much better. You can drive them with wind power. Windmills are not terribly taxing to build.
But wait… there is more. Radio! Somewhere someone is going to remember that if you can find crystals of Galena, you can make a cats-whisker receiver. As for the transmitter, a spark gap telegraph key might be enough to start with, and antennas are just wire.
What about transportation? Inefficient steam engines will not be difficult to make and boat building will not be forgotten; we will still have horses and the making of wagons using steel rimmed wheels and of shoes for horses will be well within the abilities of a local blacksmith shop.
What we would not have is a very large part of modern medicine as it relies on techniques that cannot be implemented in a blacksmith shop. What we would have is a true knowledge of anatomy, the causes of disease, the symptoms of all the now untreatable disorders, and some idea of what we could only do… if we could re-invent genetic engineering and manipulate DNA again.
So my guess is, the absolute worst non-extinction event that can happen to the human species will see us back to the 17th Century (plus radio, steam and a few other amenities) within a generation or two.
Lord, what a time of adventure it would be! Swords, muskets, sailing ships, radio and a nearly empty world with magical items scattered across it and there for the taking.